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Halftime Thoughts: The truth behind racism in sports

Sports have always been about more than just the games. They represent a way of life, a society in themselves, the values and organization of the world we live in—to an extent, reflecting a microcosm of reality. But sports are evolving: what used to be an application of the real world has become a catalyst to change it.

As athletes become more influential and popular, and the games become more player-centric, sports have become platforms to reshape the world. The voices of athletes have never been louder. With social media amplifying their reach, and sporting events having mass media coverage, the icons of sports use their influence to speak out on social and political issues. 

The roots of change

Many societal structures used to be or until now are built upon racism, and sports, as a result, are no different. The sporting world was known in the past to be a platform for individuals to showcase their exceptional capabilities and skills in their chosen sports—that is, if you were among the privileged. For many years, particularly in the United States, the professional sporting community mirror the pattern of segregation that society perpetrated. In the early years of many sports leagues, such as the NFL, the MLB, and the NBA, only white people were allowed to play, and though in some leagues, the color barriers were more of unspoken rules, there were others that blatantly banned black people.

The lack of inclusion no longer prevails, but racial discrimination has not yet been completely eradicated. We now live in a society where players have more opportunities, regardless of race; but the wide and open path that athletes walk on today was paved by the bravery of the athletes who came before—the athletes who challenged the existing norms of society.

One of the major sporting figures who challenged the color barrier, specifically in baseball, was Jackie Robinson. He was the first-ever black man to boldly enter the biggest baseball league in the United States, at a time when segregation was still the norm, and his dive into the league created massive ripple effects all around him.

In 1947, Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his welcoming into the MLB was not exactly what one would call warm. For the most part, many people could only see the color of his skin, so his skills needed to surpass that in order for him to prove his worth, along with the worth of all the people he was representing. And to do this, he had to put up with fans throwing derogatory slurs at him, pitchers deliberately aiming for his head, hate mail, and even death threats. But he did it. 

Robinson overcame all those who only viewed him as a color, and it brought him and his team major successes. Along with his incredible stats, he brought the Dodgers to win the league title that year, and he earned the first-ever Rookie of the Year award. Ultimately, Robinson’s feats could not be ignored, especially by the other teams. Soon enough, more people gradually began to realize that inclusivity was the way forward. Robinson paved the way for a new era in baseball; he is only one of many who had to fight for equality, and the far-reaching implications of their struggles are still recognized today.

Unconscious racism

This article was one of the hardest that I’ve ever had to write, not because I did not know what to say, but because I could not find the words to verbalize it. Racism is still alive, but not in the form we used to know. While writing this article, I realized I do not truly understand what racism looks like today. As a Filipino living in the Philippines, I have had the privilege not to have experienced it.

It was through the stories and statements of athletes and personalities after the horrendous incident of George Floyd’s murder that I was offered a glimpse into what racism looks like today. Racism in the past was obvious, from slavery to Jim Crow laws, and if you went back in time, you could walk down the street and the issue would smack you right in the face. It was brutal, public, and visual because no one made an effort to hide it.

Racism today, however, is insidious—a specter looming over society.  It no longer being visceral has given many the luxury to ignore it as if it were not there, and for a long time, such is what has been happening. Society dismissed it, and it poisoned us right under our noses.

As racism in society evolved, it did the same in sports. Although the abundance of players of color on the fields, pitches, and courts would suggest that they are given opportunities in the sporting world, we may be looking at the wrong place.

If we dig deeper, racism in sports is found in the establishment that rules it. By examining the organizations and looking at the very top, aside from Michael Jordan, there is not a single major sports team in North America owned by a black person. African-American NFL players make up about 70 percent of the league’s athletes, but there are only three black head coaches out of all 32 teams, and the story is eerily similar in the NBA. The truth is that it is hard to appear racist when you have black superstars like LeBron James or Lamar Jackson headlining your team, but when you look up at the front office and management, you find an unmistakable problem. 

Upon examining sports journalism, a possible answer to the question of prevailing racism in the sports world arises. Patrick Ferrucci, an associate professor and the associate dean for graduate studies in the Department of Journalism at the University of Colorado, conducted an experiment to show that people unconsciously stereotype athletes of different races. Based on the evidence he found, a black athlete is normally described as naturally gifted and incredibly athletic, with special physical abilities, while white athletes are praised for their intuition and a thorough understanding of the game. Even in sports, these constant stereotypes are insidious; without us knowing, we discount one against the other, and ultimately, that is why the sporting establishment is still ruled by white males. 

The racism we encounter today will not reveal itself in the obvious manner it used to, which makes it all the more important for people of privilege to recognize these ingrained biases and help snuff discrimination out completely. We are in a unique position to create real lasting change, even from halfway around the world, and we must not forget the power that every individual can hold.

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